What your project and kitchen have in common

It might sound a little surprising to hear at first - admittedly, an office and a kitchen aren't exactly the same work environment. They're made up of different people, different equipment, even different working hours. Not to mention the process itself is also very different, isn't it?

Wrong. It's actually quite similar. Sure, the constraints and the resources aren't the same from one to the other. But here's where they are really, eerily alike:

  1. The goal: make a positive impact
  2. The process: establish know-how and strive for continuous improvement

I believe some team leads are guilty of making light of the importance of these two aspects of project and product management - even though they're probably the most important ones. We never stick around long enough to see whether we delivered long-term business value. Chefs have the benefit of immediate feedback through online reviews, people's facial expressions, in-person comments to waiters, and return visits. If they mess up in any step of their process - they've got trouble! No chef wants to be shut down for unsanitary conditions, be the culprit for a bout of food poisoning, or delivering so-so dishes.

So put on your chef's hat! Here are six things every successful chef does on a regular basis that can make you a better project manager or product manager.

1. Who's eating?

If your goal as a chef is to create a dish that will please your guests' palates, you need to know who they are and what they like. It's the same idea for your project's customers and stakeholders. Who are they and how will they be using what you implement in their day-to-day?

 If you're implementing a new patient electronic health records system, your end users will be doctors, nurses, and various hospital staff. Knowing that these people are often overwhelmed with busy schedules, that they are tired and work long hours or that they don't always have access to a computer are all little hints that will enable you to make better decisions for their benefit and create more value.

Your client consumes your project's end result, just like a restaurant guest consumes an item on a menu. Consider that under-delivering on value will have similar off-putting consequences as a bad tasting dish in a restaurant: disgust, frustration, annoyance. 

At least your mistakes won't give anyone salmonella...

2. What are your customers hungry for?

It's all about expectations. A customer at Hooters is not expecting the same thing as one at Nobu 57. Here's where the idea of balancing constraints comes into play. If your customers are expecting a high quality, bedazzled meal you'll probably have to sacrifice something like speed and cost.

If we go back to our medical example above, the solution you provide will be a function of your customer's needs and expectations. You may be able to negotiate a slightly longer timeline if the two don't fully align. Here's where you have a bit of an advantage over the chef: you can manage your client's expectations. In fact, it's up to you to make sure they understand they can't have a Nobu 57 quality meal on a Hooter's budget.

3. Tweak your recipe and push the envelope

Before a chef adds a dish to a menu, they can go through a lengthy process of tweaking and improving the recipe, but they don't stop there. They continuously update it even after by iterating thanks to feedback from fellow chefs, the addition of novel ingredients, tweaks to the cooking method and baking times. They think about each component and how it takes part of the unified whole.

A great amount of thought and planning is included in the creation of a new dish, just like in the creation of a new project. Get to know your ingredients and how they react under pressure, understand your process' kinks and flaws and find solutions. Listen to your team, your clients, and stakeholders. With an open mind, you can right what went wrong and concoct some creative solutions to deliver the most value.

World famous Copenhagen Noma's chef-owner Rene Redzepi talks about his dramatic change and kicks off the following video with "How good is it going to be? As good as before? That's the question." If your recipe is already awesome, can you make it better? Imaging moving a restaurant to a new location inside a crazy new building with an out-of-the-box menu when you're already at the top of the culinary excellence food chain. Here's a process guy who made the leap to rethink everything rather than sit on his business-as-usual successes.


4. Prep your sous-chefs

Executive chefs don't cook every component of a dish, just like project managers don't actually execute all of the steps in the process. The role of the executive chef is to make sure everyone knows what to do, how to do it (expectations!) and when to do it. The best executive chefs are not the tyrants we see in reality shows (ahem... Gordon Ramsay). No. The best ones are open to ideas from their team, they encourage everyone to seek help and ask questions, they are open to hearing about difficulties and brainstorm potential solutions to these problems with the whole team. Chefs like Rene Redzepi challenge their team to push boundaries, discover new tricks and present their innovations to be implemented into the service.

Don't forget about this important point when you're managing your project, because an unmotivated and uninvolved team stunts improvement making the previous step (tweaking your recipe) pretty much impossible. Executive chefs still need to taste everything and project managers still need to track everything. But even though those tasks are rather solitary, they can't be the only things accomplished if we want to achieve our goal.

5. A symphony in the kitchen!

Once all the kitchen staff knows what to do and their mise en place (in other words, their plan) is done, the dinner service can begin! Kitchens can be very efficient and well-oiled machines, but an executive chef is still needed to iron out potential kinks and do some quality control.

If you've done the previous steps right, the execution of a project should go rather smoothly but that doesn't mean you can take your eyes off it just yet. You still need to talk to your team to make sure they haven't encountered any difficulties and double check on the work being done to ensure it's up to standards, just like an executive chef would do.

Again, the consequences of a badly executed dinner service could be of much greater magnitude than that of your project. But just because you aren't at risk of burning down your kitchen, doesn't mean you can let your guard down so easily!

6. Look for smiles & Keep Surprising

Executive chefs are constantly looking for feedback, and one of the easiest ways to get it is by peaking into the dining room and reading the facial expressions of their guests. As a project manager, if you want to make sure you deliver an end result that will have the positive impact you promised, you can seek out similar feedback by serving clients and stakeholders bite-size portions and collecting their assessments. 

The greatest executive chefs show empathy and genuinely care about the people around them. Not just their guests, but their staff, too. As humans, we find joy in giving back to the people around us and making their lives more enjoyable. I can't emphasize this point enough: if you want to be a good project manager look for smiles. And maybe crack one yourself!

A big challenge when it comes to pleasing restaurant customers or business project consumers is one of Rene's 4 tips on staying creative, which is to keep surprising people. Nudge your customers' expectations and their idea of what quality project results can do for their business. I don't know any project managers that takes this extra mile, but, just imagine!


It's easy to get lost in our day-to-day activities and lose perspective on why we're doing something or who we're doing it for. Perhaps if we got in the habit of looking at our projects in the eyes of an executive chef, we'd have an easier time figuring out what's burning in the kitchen! 

Just because your customers won't necessarily vomit if your project recipe and ingredients are below standard, assume that your shortcomings would ultimately generate a similar reaction. Stay out of trouble. Create a secret sauce that will get your project customers asking for more.

What are Piematrix Pie Recipes?

At PieMatrix, we have built our visual project management tool to be driven at the core by quality project templates we call "Pie Recipes". These are processes organizations can redefine as recipes for repeatable projects. It's made for those who want to have flexible standards and the ability to execute their projects with confidence, leveraging lessons learned while engaging team members to innovate. Bon appétit!


Written by Isabelle Blondin

Photos by LUM3N and Paul Dandurand

Paul DandurandComment